In August, Barclays Bank estimated that students starting their degrees this year could expect to graduate with debts of more than £17,000. If, and when, the government introduces top-up fees, this will have grown to more than £20,000. When the rise in the cost of living is taken into account, Barclays believes that by 2010 the figure is likely to exceed £33,000.
The rising level of student debt presents a major challenge for professions, such as law, that require graduates to undertake postgraduate training before entry. On the basis of today's figures, those wishing to train to be barristers or solicitors are faced with the prospect of adding between £16,000 and £20,000 a year to already high levels of undergraduate debt, to fund a one-year vocational course. Thus, there must be a very real danger that the profession will not only be closed to students from poor backgrounds but also to the children of middle England.
It is now generally accepted that graduates, who will reap the ultimate benefits of having a degree and other qualifications, should make a significant financial contribution towards the costs of gaining it.
Therefore government is not going to make large sums available to help train lawyers. Equally, suggestions that the legal profession should pay more towards the training of its entrants are unrealistic without a limit being placed on the numbers able to enter vocational training. The only option left, if we are to continue to have a legal profession open to all, is a radical review of the way we train lawyers.
It is possible for all of the material taught on vocational courses to be incorporated into undergraduate law degrees. The legal profession already recognises a four-year degree at the University of Northumbria as satisfying both the initial and vocational stage of training. We would like to see this model followed in more universities because of the financial advantage it offers students -they will pay out less and be able to fund nearly half the course through student loans.
However, it is probably unrealistic to suggest that in the short, or even medium term, such degrees could be the normal route of entry to the legal profession. On the other hand, the possibility of at least some of the material taught on vocational courses being incorporated into the law degree should be explored. This would leave the way open for a shorter vocational course, perhaps dispersed throughout a period of in-service training and available in part-time and distance-learning modules.
Any proposals to increase the compulsory elements of the law degree will be controversial. In England and Wales, links between the professional bodies and the law schools have never been as strong as in most other jurisdictions. Traditionally, the law schools have seen their degrees as part of a "liberal education" and they display a reluctance to recognise the importance of the degree for the training of professional lawyers.
However, if we want a legal profession that is open to all, the present system of training has to change.
The professional bodies will find it increasingly difficult to justify requiring potential entrants to attend, after graduation, an expensive year-long course when there are more economical ways of achieving the desired training outcomes. Equally, university law schools may no longer be able to afford to distance themselves from the needs of the legal profession in an era when students are becoming more and more like customers, seeking best value for the heavy investments they have to make to secure a prosperous future.
Against this background, it is surely time for the professional bodies and the law schools to start working together to produce a new training framework that the students of 2010 will be able to afford.
Nigel A. Bastin
Head of education and training department Bar Council